The intolerant left, then and now

The intolerant left — the ones who approve of “free speech zones,” speech codes, shouting down speakers, and in some cases violent suppression — reminds me of certain campus factions when I was a student in the late sixties and early seventies. We can learn from the similarities and the differences.

In the “sixties” (which stretched into the seventies), it was mostly hard-core socialist groups who opposed free speech and tried to silence opponents. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) loved to intimidate and shout down speakers. Youth Against War and Fascism (YAWF) handed out fliers declaring that “Fascists have no right to speak!” By “fascists,” on that occasion, they meant libertarians opposing rent control.

They were on the fringe. Most students and administrators in those days supported free speech and debate, even if the debate got nasty. I was with the MIT newspaper Ergo, which evolved from libertarian-conservative to Objectivist during my years with it, and there was never a broad-based effort to stop it from publishing. Stacks of copies sometimes mysteriously disappeared from the places they were put out, but that just takes one person.

Today, the intolerance is a more mainstream phenomenon. Take this recent editorial by the Wellesley News staff, ironically titled “Free Speech Is Not Violated at Wellesley,” which snarls:

Shutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others is not a violation of free speech; it is hate speech. …

if people are given the resources to learn and either continue to speak hate speech or refuse to adapt their beliefs, then hostility may be warranted. If people continue to support racist politicians or pay for speakers that prop up speech that will lead to the harm of others, then it is critical to take the appropriate measures to hold them accountable for their actions.

Saying that people must “adapt their beliefs” is the language of religion, treating belief as obligatory conformity rather than the result of a thought process. The term “hate speech” is infinitely flexible, serving the purpose “blasphemy” has served in other times and places.

What we’re seeing now is more dangerous, as colleges teach people to “shut down” rhetoric and ideas they disapprove of. Some of these people will become journalists, teachers, and lawyers. SDS and YAWF burned themselves out, though some of their people went into academia to promote their ideas. The modern intolerant left threatens to create a more intolerant society.

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